State Attorney’s Office statistics show the number of dropped criminal cases this year is less than half of what it was just two years ago.
The decrease means fewer people charged with crimes are walking free without a trial based on bad evidence, flaky witnesses or a host of other case-crippling problems.
State Attorney Angela Corey’s supporters applaud her for the aggressive prosecution although Public Defender Matt Shirk said the increased caseload is part of the reason his office’s trial win-percentage is on an upswing.
With the 2010 court calendar winding down, prosecutors say 426 criminal cases have been abandoned in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, the region that makes up Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit.
The numbers compare with 764 in 2009 and 938 in 2008. Corey said the dramatic decrease this year provides a richer context for otherwise unsettling recent headlines about two Jacksonville murder suspects who’d been allowed to walk free when prosecutors discovered key witnesses weren’t keeping their stories straight.
Cases are dropped — lawyers often use the Latin term “nolle prosequi” — sometimes because victims go into hiding, defendants cut a deal or prosecutors defer to federal investigators who have filed similar charges. Other times, a defendant dies, evidence testing is inconclusive or prosecutors just don’t think they have a good enough case to go on.
Shirk and Corey each took office in 2009. Since that time, Shirk said the Public Defender’s Office win-percentage at trial has grown from 12 percent in 2008 to 20 percent this year.
He said his attorneys won acquittals in 51 of the 257 jury trials they staffed this year. He theorized that the lower dropped-case figure is a factor, arguing that Corey is pushing weaker cases that maybe should settle for a plea bargain.
“You can look at it one of two ways. You’re letting justice take its toll or, is it really a fair use of taxpayer dollars to take these cases to trial?” Shirk said, adding that his office has spent $211,647 this year on trial-preparation costs such as expert witnesses, transcripts and depositions.
An additional $105,038 has been spent on cases that wound up on appeal this year, Shirk said. The cost figures do not include his attorneys’ salaries or the salaries of prosecutors and courtroom personnel.
Corey’s chief assistant, Dan McCarthy, disputes Shirk’s win-percentage, saying that of any 10 trials in a week, prosecutors will win eight or nine and that includes those against private attorneys.
McCarthy said prosecutors have taken 325 cases to trial this year. That’s a big jump from the 150 or so that were going to trial annually before Corey took office.
Perhaps the biggest reason, McCarthy explained, is Corey’s reluctance to enter into plea bargains just to clear a case through the system.
“If you start thinking like that, the defense bar picks up on it and pushes harder. Then you’re like a dog. You’re running,” McCarthy said.
Corey said that’s a trait that distinguishes her from her predecessor, Harry Shorstein, who said it was common practice to drop some charges against career criminals if he could nail them with one particular case.
“Some might say, ‘Well, you dropped two out of three of the cases.’ Yeah, but we got what we wanted,” Shorstein said.
Corey said her attorneys are dropping fewer cases because they’re doing better homework at the time of arrest.
Both seem to have a point, according to the numbers. Nearly 200 cases in the 4th Circuit were dropped in 2008 because the defendant had pleaded guilty or was found guilty in another case. That figure dropped below 100 this year.
The number of cases dropped because of what prosecutors termed simply as “improbability of conviction,” went from 192 in 2008 to 103 in 2010.
“Her aggressive prosecution model is paying dividends,” McCarthy said.